Cocktail bitters are one of the easiest ways to add complexity to a drink and take it from “just okay” to “wow.” Learn more about this incredible, versatile ingredient and how to use it in your drinks.
Have you ever heard of adding “a dash of bitters” to a cocktail?
We, bartenders, liken this to adding a sprinkle of flaky sea salt to your food. It just wouldn’t be the same, would it?
In that sense, bitters are like a “seasoning” for cocktails, so if your drink seems lacking in flavor, a dash or two of bitters might be the answer!
Bitters are a finishing touch that adds a certain complexity to the flavor of the drink, even with just a few drops (AKA a dash). You can really have so much fun with this versatile ingredient!
They’re often the thing that makes a cocktail stand out. And choosing the right one for the right cocktail can be so important.
I have been working on building up my arsenal of cocktail resources for you to learn more about the ingredients you are putting into your drinks.
I recently shared my top bar tools and I also wrote all about ginger beer and the best brands of ginger beer out there, and I want to do the same for bitters. So let’s dive right in, shall we?
What are bitters?
Bitters are an alcoholic flavoring agent made of aromatic plant extracts that are often used to flavor cocktails and drinks. They are made from a number of botanical ingredients such as:
These botanical ingredients are combined and steeped in alcohol for days, weeks or even months to achieve complex flavor profiles.
The base alcohol can make a difference in the flavor. Vodka provides a clean slate for any flavors, but gin or bourbon can add another layer of complexity.
Sometimes cocktail bitters can contain artificial coloring as well, but in my opinion, that’s not needed — the infusions can take on a color all their own!
History of bitters
Bitters date back to ancient Egypt in which wine was infused with herbs. Distilled alcohol was also popular in the Middle Ages.
And then these tinctures boomed in the mid-1800s, when they were used for medicinal purposes to treat everything from stomachaches to malaria.
The earliest known cocktail recipe using bitters dates back to 1806. According to Smithsonian Magazine, an agriculture periodical from Philadelphia called Farmer’s Cabinet, wrote a recipe for what we would consider a cocktail that called for four ingredients: “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”
The most famous bitters brand is arguably Angostura bitters. It is most commonly used in the classic old-fashioned recipe.
Known for its oversized label (a printing mistake turned branding strategy), these flavorful bitters date back to 1824 when founder Dr. Johann Siegert created a medicinal tincture designed to alleviate stomach ailments.
His three sons migrated to Trinidad in the 1870s and his son Don Carlos Siegert established the bitters as an essential ingredient for cocktails and food.
Today, bottles of these bitters have a seat at every bar.
Angostura are “aromatic” bitters, the most common type of bitters which generally contain gentian, quassia, and wild cherry bark.
However, there are lots of other bitters brands and flavors out there, and I recommend trying them as often — if not more so — than Angostura.
Are bitters alcoholic?
Technically, yes. But even though cocktail bitters contain alcohol, you wouldn’t want to drink it straight. Kind of like vanilla extract — contains alcohol but you wouldn’t want to drink it plain. Both are very potent!
However, sometimes you might see bitters used as a spirit in a cocktail, like the Trinidad Sour. It calls for 1 1/2 ounces of Angostura bitters! As you can imagine these drinks pack a powerful punch.
Where to buy cocktail bitters
Even though bitters are alcoholic, you can usually find them in the grocery store where the cocktail mixers, toothpicks and margarita salt live. Some liquor stores may carry them as well.
But you’ll usually only find the key players there: Angostura and Peychaud’s, which is another aromatic bitters with a woodsy flavor profile of licorice, saffron, orange peel and caramel.
There are tons of small-batch bitters brands that are surfacing these days, and I love exploring all the different flavors. Head to a wine shop or specialty foods store and you might see a selection of fun flavors to try.
Collecting bitters is one of my favorite things to do. As you can see by the photos here, I have built up quite a collection. This is only about… maybe a third of my collection! I’ll tell you more about it soon.
Some of my favorite brands are Woodford Reserve, Hella Bitters, Bittermen’s, Crude Bitters, Infuse Bitters and The Bitter Housewife, but there are lots more out there.
Tips on using bitters
Most cocktail recipes will call for “dashes” of bitters. A dash of bitters is typically 6-8 drops or 1/8th of a teaspoon.
There are a few ways to use bitters, and it comes down to the bottle you are using.
- The most common way to distribute bitters is through the plastic dasher at the top of the bottle, under the lid. When tipped upside down, only a few drops — AKA a dash — will come out at a time through the hole in the dasher. Many bitters bottles come in this style, but you can also decant the liquids into pretty glass bitters bottles for your bar cart.
- Another option is an eyedropper. This lets you control how many drops of bitters you want to use. You can simply add a drop, or fill the dropper fully to let out a dash. This is my favorite way.
- A third, and less common way, is to use a spray nozzle. This allows you to spray on the bitters more lightly as a mist, instead of in heavy drops. This is more common at cocktail bars with creative menus, but you can also try it at home!
Choosing a flavor of bitters
Though aromatic bitters are a staple, there are lots of other flavors of bitters to choose from.
When you are deciding which flavor of bitters to add to a cocktail, go with your gut and choose flavors that complement your cocktail. Fruit flavors are a great place to start, and you can layer on spices or herbs.
You can also choose seasonal flavors — warm spices in the winter versus bright citrus in the summer.
Tip: Always use your nose before adding them to a cocktail — a quick whiff of your drink (bitters can be added last) and the bitters you have in mind will help you decide if they would go well together. You can also add a drop of bitters to the back of your hand and lick it — and then wash your hands, please.
Here are a few common ones you might consider adding to your home bar:
And then bitters can get pretty creative from there. Sometimes as a single flavor, sometimes as a combination of several. I love seeing what the small-batch companies come up with!
- jalapeño or habanero (spicy!)
- lemon pepper
A few ideas…
Bitters are most commonly used in spirit-forward cocktails like the old-fashioned, the Manhattan and the Sazerac, but you can feel free to add a dash to a margarita or even simply a glass of seltzer. Bitters also tend to show up in champagne cocktail recipes as well.
A few ideas to get your creative juices flowing:
Making a chai old-fashioned? Cinnamon, cardamom and ginger bitters would be really tasty.
Or maybe you’ve dreamed up an old-fashioned with peanut butter whiskey, so you might try berry bitters for a PB&J flavor or you could go chocolate for a PB cup flavor.
For a maple manhattan, you might try pecan bitters or orange bitters.
My best advice? Just have fun. Build a collection with flavors that inspire you. You’ve got this! // susannah
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